“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!’ then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.”
– Tina Fey, Bossypants
When I was on tour I learned a really important lesson about improvisation and by extension life. Because life is improvisation. It was told to me by Ross Noble who said he got the advice from Ricky Gervais in a deep and meaningful. When learning about improvisation, the most common mistake inexperienced comics made is that they block. In the sense that they block a scene.
It puts unnecessary barriers instead of letting a scene play out. The example used is “If there is a scene where a guy is walking into a shop and says “aha, a shop I might buy something,” the other person might say “We’re closed for today” which blocks the scene from continuing.” But instead, if the shop were open, then who knows what possibilities could occur.
The person blocking the scene also accidentally believes they are contributing to it. They are trying to be funny or helpful. Without realising they are stopping the progression of events. The experienced comics knew better and to just let a scene play out because it might go in interesting and unique directions if you just let it do so. Sometimes even creating material that was used for decades by comics in their scripted shows.
The result is the chaos of not knowing where you’re going might mean you’ll go somewhere promising and create something entirely new. So much of society is forcing people to change who they are and be what they don’t want to. And when they do, we put all these barriers in front of them. We think we’re doing it in their best interest. But it does more harm than good.
It became like an in joke among a lot of the top standups. People like Chris Rock, Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Connolly, Eddie Murphy, Russel Brand etc etc and would be repeated backstage all the time. Like whenever someone would try something crazy and everyone would be against it, they would say “Don’t block!” So none of them would block each other.
When asked where it came from, Ross Noble said he got it from Ricky Gervais. When asked how he got the notion of “Don’t block!” He said that he got it from Monty Python who got it from Mel Brooks and Woody Allen who got it from Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke who got it from Peter Sellers. And so it would become this kind of sage advice passed down to newer people entering the art.
Every new comic has one defining crazy moment where they were nobodies, then suddenly they became somebodies, be it a gig or a tv show or a meeting. Years of hard work leads to that moment. Before then it is as much about mentorship as it is about talent. The new is bred by the old.
And so it would become advice that standups almost pass down from one to the other. Nobody knows where it came from. It’s even taught in theatre schools. But this particular notion is emphasised above all else. Because if you just don’t block, then something will play out it’s natural course.
It’s an idea well understood by people who create for a living. But applies to so much of life. Shooting down ideas, being negative, taking the wind out of peoples sails is sometimes just nasty cynicism dressed up as helpful criticism. If there is a lack of anything in this world, it’s ambition and people who dream about what could be possible and actually try to make it so and try new things.
The point of the line is that it’s a lesson from theatre that applies in every day life. I think it means when someone does something different or trying something scary and new, they shouldn’t be brought down because of it. It became like a code word for don’t stand in their way. Don’t create hurdles or unnecessary barriers. Always be supportive. Well meaning negativity often does more harm than good because it kills things before it has even gotten started. The advice you would give to people is to ignore it and persevere anyway.
It’s a lonely and difficult road, the one where you actually do what you want and succeed at it. When someone is doing so, it becomes an important life lesson. It’s easier to stand in the way and say you are helping. But really, just get out of the way. Just go with the flow.
In life and in art and in love.
You just, you “Don’t block!”